Don’t be evil: a cute slogan. Now a rescinded promise.
Can’t be evil: a model for future organizations and business.
Companies will transition from trusted terms of service to establishing contractual agreements of service digitally. Proving an immutable level of service will be the new norm and a unique selling point across consumer and enterprise software.
Users have had enough of broken privacy and broken products. Tech companies have painted themselves into a dangerous corner with free software and ad supported models. Growth at any cost, a model backed by many VCs and startups is often at odds with users’ interests. This has led several entrepreneurs to put can’t be evil at the focal point of their efforts as far back as 2014. Major points of Internet failure were illuminated by Muneeb Ali in his 2016 TEDx talk and post, appropriately titled, “Can’t be evil.”
In 2018, the shit hit the fan; data breaches, negligence and consumer awareness of data monetization. In 2019, can’t be evil startups will make a fortune cleaning up pre-2018 Internet. New cryptography breakthroughs, distributed data, secure compute and immutable databases are fueling this revolution.
“ Web  was don’t be evil. Web  is can’t be evil. You bake it into the code that you can’t be evil.” ~ Chris Dixon via Breaker Mag
What Went Wrong?
In 2018, we saw major data breaches at prominent tech companies. Like most white collar crime, they went unpunished and were quickly forgotten. Some long term effects of data breaches are hard to track, but not impossible, see: Data breaches affect stock performance in the long run, study finds. The damage for end users can be far worse, due to the vast scope of user data gathered, combined with seemingly infinite repurposing dimensions. Identity theft, tracking, training AI and advertising targeting are only the broad categories we know today.
Recently, the United States Congress had a number of prominent tech companies testify. To say this demonstrated a lack of understanding regarding the impact of technology is an understatement. How are politicians, regulators and law makers to cope with creating regulations for technology they do not understand? The social, political and economic implications of data driven business models are misunderstood by all but a handful of tech elite, and they want to keep it that way.
There is a silver lining. Consumer consciousness on the issues is shifting. We are slowly understanding what is at stake. Developers are leaving large tech firms to start impact focused startups, i.e. users own their data and growth is aligned with positive social or environmental interests. What a concept. Not only are we concerned about someone else controlling our data, we’re realizing there is potential for control of ourselves.
Free was never free. If it sounds too good to be true... Data as labor is a topic written about in Glen Weyl’s Radical Markets, but the idea has been in play for decades. From Visa transactions to our emails, big companies have been learning about who we are from our feedback and behavior data. This is big business.
You probably remember the first time you saw targeted ads and thought, “that’s a bit creepy. At least I’m seeing relevant ads.” A pretty rationale response to have. What we didn’t realize was what powers those ad placements. How data we thought we were only sharing with friends, family or co-workers is being used. This data is training analytics and AI models that provide companies with a superhuman set of personalization abilities. They can affect our mood, behavior and control us. Research has shown the smartest can be most afflicted.
Sound like techno panic or tinfoil hat territory? Several reports (2/several) have shown that the majority of users have no idea what their data is being used for. Notably the most recent data on this fact was compiled by the Electronic Frontier Foundation that lobbies and fights for consumer protection online.
Why are some in denial of how companies profit from control over our data and our lives? Because they let us share memes, coordinate events and store all of our memories for free? The hidden costs of social engineering at the state and corporate level are far worse than a few dollars a month. Compounding these costs are automation and job loss at staggering rates, spurring interest in new models.
New business models for the internet will not be free. The silver lining: by aligning incentives, and with the help of new technology, users will end up net zero or in the case of influencers, making a profit. Welcome to the, “can’t be evil,” economy.
What’s powering can’t be evil organizations? You might suspect buzzwords like blockchain and cryptocurrency along the names of several startups and some heavy hand waving. This article is about fundamentals and it’s much simpler that all of that. Cryptography.
Breakthroughs in cryptography are the cornerstone of the hype and buzzwords in this new industry of trustless business. Blockchain quickly became an umbrella term for the whole space, but it’s a misnomer. Blockchains are only cryptographically sealed immutable databases. There’s a plethora of concerns around networking and computing, and architectures that leverage cryptography to create can’t be evil business logic. Some involve blockchain databases and some do not. It’s high time we mature the discourse.
“The Blockchain Will Do to the Financial System What the Internet Did to Media” ~ HBR
Cryptocurrency or crypto has become another catch-all term. The technology was dangerously overused in late 2016 and through 2017 with disappointing results in 2018. What the Bitcoin community refers to as the double spend problem of digital currencies has been solved and solutions continue to improve.
We need several architectures that solve the, “double ownership,” problem of data. Each with their own benefits and trade-offs. We can’t simply add money to the internet and expect business to change. The paradigm shift must go beyond money. We need to shift society and culture. Movements around the world are beginning to hack away at what some are referring to as the Web 3.0 technology stack.
The internet has ruined consumer appetite for paid content and intellectual property. Media underwent a massive upheaval with the advent of P2P. The problems of those industries crossed by new technologies are still not solved. The transformation has also spawned social echo chambers of fake news and targeted advertising technology beyond the scope of this post. Essentially, if we don’t start owning, attributing and valuing good content, we are screwed.
These movements must lower cognitive burden, social and economic costs of adopting new business models. Users are familiar with certain UX and payment patterns. Too much burden with too little reward is a recipe for adoption disaster. A way in may be through existing institutions that already attempt have the same participatory business models of these movements, e.g. a coop grocery chain or retailer.
There is always a disruption when new technology arrives. The incumbents try to layer it on existing business models and fail. New organizations emerge and nimbly cement themselves in an industry with new business models, later transforming that industry. Cryptography is software. Development cycles are incredibly fast. Can’t be evil organizations are coming. Along with them are the B2B and B2C can’t be evil SaaS providers. Where will you build?
Now is the best time to learn about cryptography, distributed computing and multi-party computation. While everyone’s eyes are on what AI/ML or other technologies will do next, we must shift our attention to who and how we control AI and emerging technologies. New breakthroughs, algorithms and design patterns are occurring almost daily. There is an inordinate amount of data produced by us. It’s time we take back what’s rightfully ours. We’ll need the right tools to do it. Can’t be evil is the future of technology, organizations and business.
How will you prove yourself?